In September 2021, Melody Barnes, chair of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, led a conversation with four social change leaders who for more than a decade have used collective impact to create collaborative, place-based change.
Participants included Jennifer Blatz, president and CEO of StriveTogether, a national network of local communities striving to achieve racial equity and economic mobility, supporting the success of every child from cradle to career; Geoffrey Canada, founder and president of Harlem Children’s Zone and the recently launched William Julius Wilson Center, nonprofits working to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty with comprehensive, on-the-ground programming that builds opportunities for children, families, and communities; Rosanne Haggerty, president and chief executive officer of Community Solutions, a nonprofit working to achieve a lasting end to homelessness; and Erik Stegman, chief executive officer of Native Americans in Philanthropy, an organization promoting increased and equitable investments in tribal communities that align with Indigenous values.
During this roundtable, the participants discussed how their years of experience with collective impact has evolved and what they have learned that will carry them into the next decade of collaborative work to improve communities. This discussion is an unabridged version of an article shared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled Reflecting on Collective Impact for Place-Based Social Change.
Please find a transcript of this podcast lower down this page
Resources and Footnotes
- Article: Reflecting on Collective Impact for Place-Based Social Change (Stanford Social Innovation Review)
- Article: Centering Equity in Collective Impact (Stanford Social Innovation Review)
The Intro music, entitled “Running,” was composed by Rafael Krux, and can be found here and is licensed under CC: By 4.0. The outro music, entitled “Deliberate Thought,” was composed by Kevin Macleod. Licensed under CC: By.
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Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.
The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative and online community that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.
In this episode, we feature an unabridged roundtable discussion amongst a group of leaders who share what they have learned using the collective impact approach for collaborative, place-based change. This roundtable was conducted as part of an online series published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which explores the collective impact movement 10 years after the original article was published in SSIR. Melody Barnes, who chairs the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, leads this discussion and is joined by Jennifer Blatz, president and CEO of StriveTogether; Geoffrey Canada, founder and president of Harlem Children’s Zone and the recently launched William Julius Wilson Institute; Rosanne Haggerty, president and CEO of Community Solutions, and Erik Stegman, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy.
Melody Barnes: My name is Melody Barnes and I’m chair of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and the Opportunity Youth Forum. I have to say in thinking about this 10-year anniversary that time flies when communities and leaders across the country are working to solve some of our most complex challenges. It’s hard to believe that we’ve seen 10 years of growth and adoption of collective impact in an effort to do so. Today, marking that anniversary, I am joined by four remarkable leaders who represent organizations that are on the cutting edge of the maturing field of collective impact and community collaboration. With them I’m hoping to not only reflect on the last decade examining some of the successes and some of the challenges but also illuminate key themes and issues and opportunities to forecast how the field will grow and expand impact in the next decade. Where does collective impact need to go over the next 10 years? I know we’re going to include links to the bios for each of these amazing leaders in the show notes and in the print version of this conversation so I’m just going to introduce them by title and role although none of them needs an actual introduction.
First, we have Geoff Canada, who’s president of the Harlem Children’s Zone and the founder of the William Julius Wilson Institute. Jennifer Blatz, president and CEO of StriveTogether. Erik Stegman, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy, and Rosanne Haggerty, president and CEO of Community Solutions. Welcome to all of you and it’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to engage with you. Even if this weren’t being recorded or transcribed, I would consider this a really great afternoon just having the chance to talk to you.
Geoff, let’s start with you. The Harlem Children’s Zone is one of the earliest examples we have of a comprehensive community change initiative. From the beginning you embraced a whole ecosystem approach along with a commitment to data and rigor. Can you speak to the lessons learned from Harlem Children’s Zone and draw the connection to collective impact?
Geoffrey Canada: First of all, thank you, Melody. It’s always a pleasure and I’m so thrilled to be with this esteemed group all of whom I have just the greatest respect and admiration for. A couple of things that we’ve learned over the 20 years that we’ve been working with this collective impact strategy. The first is that the work is hard. I don’t want to say that lightly. It is hard and it’s hard every day. Today, it’s hard. It’s 20 years later and the challenges in communities that we’re working in I just think because context changes. You have COVID, you’ve got recessions, you constantly got challenges in these communities and I think that one of the issues that we have to just understand is by going into the toughest places to work you’re going into challenging circumstances and you just have to be comfortable with the fact that it’s going to be hard.
Two, it takes much longer than I would hope to actually see the change. I worry, Melody, if someone had looked at our data the first five years, they probably would have said, “You know what? I don’t think this thing is working.” We’ve had really clear data after about seven and nine years and I just think that working hard it takes a long time to produce the kind of results that you really care about. The third is that you have to really find the talent to bring together to do something that’s complicated. The nature of the work is that talent changes all the time and so you have to constantly make sure you’re bringing just the top-shelf talent.
The last thing I want to say is that the use of data to being faithful to the sort of outcomes, being honest. It is so hard when you’ve worked really, really hard at something to look at the data and realize it hasn’t moved. It hasn’t gone in the direction you wanted it to go in and then to come up with a different strategy, not to get sort of depressed by it, which I think we all do, but more importantly not to ignore it, to accept the fact that you can work really hard on something, it doesn’t work. Our commitment has to be to figure out a different sort of strategy.
I know I said that was the last thing but the other thing is I think working with a team of people on this, building the trust, being able to hold one another accountable is not an easy task and it’s something that I think you have to work on every single day.
Melody Barnes: Geoff, you talked about hard every day. Not just hard but hard every day. The time, the talent, the data, the trust and the accountability. Before I ask you a question about your newest endeavor, because in spite of the fact that it’s hard every day, you keep doing it, and I’m wondering for people who are—often, people are looking for that magic solution, that answer, the thing that is going to make it easier. What makes this so tough, but what makes it worth doing? Then perhaps you can tell us more about why you’re embedding this work in the work of the William Julius Wilson Institute.
Geoffrey Canada: Great question. For me, and this is something I can look at this group and I’m the senior citizen in this group of folk, but Melody, this is what happened to me over my life. Growing up in the South Bronx, I watched young people’s lives become destroyed simply because of the way they lived. I got out of it and it was as much a matter of luck, as talent that got me out, which is what—that fact still drives me to this day. If my grandparents hadn’t moved to Long Island, I would not be sitting here today. I just think of all of the, if not tens of thousands, it’s hundreds of thousands of children whose lives were simply interrupted in terms of progress because they lived in places like the South Bronx, which is still a very tough place for kids to grow up today. That is so unfair. It is so wrong and I feel so privileged to be able to give back into that kind of community.
So the issue of it is hard but it the most worthwhile thing I think I could have done with my life. I’ll tell you why. Some people don’t know that this country depending on where you’re born, who your parents are, what your race is, sets the boundaries of your life chances. If you don’t know that you can go through life thinking, OK, you know what? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Those of us who actually know, I think we have a responsibility to do something about it and to make sure that this doesn’t get ignored.
Now I will tell you about longevity. I will say this to folks who haven’t maybe been involved in this as long as I have, you have to take care of yourself. I think we have empathy every day and if you’re doing this work you are between staff and your kids and your family. I mean you are about exhausted and if you can’t find a way to replenish yourself every single day, you’re not going to have a long-term career doing this work. So we have to take care of ourselves and I practice self-love and self-care on a regular basis not just because it makes me feel good but because tomorrow I want to come to this work with the same passion, the same excitement, the same commitment that I feel today and I know if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t do that.
Melody Barnes: Geoff, one, that’s great advice for all of us and for everyone listening and reading about this. I’m wondering then how that led to your decision to launch the William Julius Wilson Institute. Your commitment to the work, to children, to the next generation, and what about collective impact have you embedded in this next venture?
Geoffrey Canada: You know, it was funny, Melody, because I retired and I tell people if they think it’s a joke, it’s not. I retired for seven years and boy, I will tell you, those are some of the best seven years of my life. I was happy. People said you’re going to hate it. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t get calls. My weekends were fine. It was great. But I’ll tell you what brought me back. I thought that this country would be in a different place when I retired than it is right now. I thought we’d actually have moved this wall forward. I thought when President Obama created Promise Neighborhoods, we were going to start this thing. It was going to happen all over and it was going to be great. I’m done. We’re finished. I realized it was a lot of work to be done. Williams Julius Wilson, for people who don’t know, he’s just an incredible intellectual. His writing changed the way I thought about poverty. Made it clear to me that we’ve got to get young people prepared so they can go out and become successful, take care of themselves and their families, be gainfully employed. I felt that what we had learned over 20 years that we had to share with a larger group of folks and there is no way to reach the numbers I want to reach of children, at least an additional million children over the next 10 years. That we’re going to get there without collective action it just isn’t possible. You can’t simply do this child by child. You’ve got to be able to bring groups of folks together who are serious and are committed and are prepared to work very hard toward some real solid goals if we’re going to reach the kind of scale that I care about.
I got back in it. Jennifer Blatz and I, we’re talking. You know the work that they’re doing at Strive, Rosanne, it’s like I’m so sorry, I was trying to get to Hartford this week. I hope to get there really soon. We’ve got to find people out there. And Erik, I see you. I still want to be able to figure out a way to get to spend some time with you and see what’s happening because I think we’re all in this together. I see that’s the only path, Melody, to get there. Believe me, if I thought there was an easier way, just sort of do it with just a couple of people, I would do that. There’s no easy way to get this done. This is going to be a real team effort if we’re going to reach scale and for me it became very practical. I want to reach my goal. I can’t do it alone. I need to work with others to get this done. But I need to work with serious people who are prepared to hold themselves accountable and to hold me accountable for the results.
Melody Barnes: Geoff, we’re glad that you came out of retirement. So thank you for that. You were talking about Jennifer Blatz’s work and the work of Strive and Jennifer, I want to bring you into this conversation because one of the things that Geoff also talked about were the boundaries set for life chances for children. I think about your work, the work of Strive, where things were 10 years ago, and when Strive was then being talked about and featured heavily in this SSIR article about collective impact. Tell us where your work is today and what impact you’ve been able to have as a result of collective impact and where you hope to take it.
Jennifer Blatz: Thanks, Melody, for having me. It’s wonderful to be with you and of course with Geoff and Rosanne and Erik and always fun to follow Geoff. StriveTogether, we are celebrating our 10-year anniversary of our national network. Where we are today and so much of this is attributed to an article on the Strive partnership that launched back in 2006. We have grown to really 70 communities that we support across our national movements reaching 11 million children and seven million of those children are children of color. This is across 29 states. When you have a scale of that magnitude there is so much learning that happens from our partnerships, partnerships pushing one another. We call it the network effect.
Geoff, you said it very well. This work is hard. This group of network members that we support, support one another as the work gets hard and we push one another and we learn and we fail forward together and there have been many fail forwards over the last decade. We were doing this work in Cincinnati, we were really drawing upon the lessons from the Harlem Children’s Zone, and I often tell people we actually applied for a Promise Neighborhoods grant and didn’t get one in Cincinnati but like so many other partnerships across the country, building on the lessons of collective impact at this work knowing that it was so important to bring together cross-sector partners.
Where we’ve come and the success that we’ve had I think has been largely as a result of the learning, that shared learning that happens across the network and creating our own framework based on lessons that we learn on the ground. We call it our StriveTogether theory of action for building cradle to career civic infrastructure. I know that’s a mouthful of jargon but really what it is is a road map for what it looks like to build these types of cross-sector partnerships on the ground and we iterate on it, on this, over and over again.
In fact, in a couple of weeks at our annual convening that will be virtual again this year unfortunately, we’ll be releasing the fifth iteration of that theory of action and that work, based on the lessons learned, is really about centering racial and ethnic equity in our theory of action, in our approach much more explicitly than the earliest days of our first iteration of this theory of action that was launched back in 2013. We’ve revised and improved and continuously improve five times based on the lessons learned. But there has been a lot of success. Of our network of nearly 70 partnerships, 16 of those partnerships are what are known as our proof point partnerships, which they’ve demonstrated that they’ve moved outcomes at scale, four of six cradle to career outcomes. They’ve seen improvement as well as examples of systems change.
You talked, Melody, at the outset about the example that Harlem Children’s Zone has set for creating ecosystem approach and that systems change is so critical. That’s really what we’re working to drive, to get the outcomes at scale, to get the population level impact, we have to change systems. I mentioned the revision of our theory of action sort of where we’re going in our work is not only about changing systems but again, our network of communities pushed us to raise the bar again and it’s really what does systems transformation look like and how do you measure it and we measure it through the shifting of power structures, the shifting of policies, the shifting of resources, and the shifting of practices.
For the first five to seven years of our work we got really good at shifting practices and have some amazing examples of incremental practice change that leads to better outcomes for kids and families and we’re really proud of that. But the scale comes when we’re shifting power structures and when we’re shifting policies. Together, and which builds on Geoff’s discussion about how we’re collaborating as a field, that’s what it’s going to take to get to the policy change that we need to see.
I’m encouraged by the momentum despite the fact that I think we all wish that we were in a different place right now particularly given the last 18 months what we’ve experienced when inequities, systemic inequities, racism, have been at the forefront of the outcomes we see. I think coming together to be able to drive forward, drive systems change forward is what I see as the sort of next work of collective impact and it’s exciting to be in partnership with all of you as we drive that forward.
Melody Barnes: Thanks Jennifer. I’m going to turn to Erik in a second but I wanted to ask you a question based on something you just talked about. You were talking about the significant change, the systems transformation work that requires a shift in power structures and resources. I wanted to pause on that for a second because it’s easy to hear that and say, “OK,” and keep going. But people don’t give up power or resources easily. People don’t say, “Oh, OK. All you have to do is ask.” I’m curious about the challenges that you’ve encountered as you’ve been doing that work whether from inside the collaborative or externally and how you’ve been able to use collective impact to advance that to make those kinds of changes including a mindset shift.
Jennifer Blatz: Yes, you are exactly right, Melody. This doesn’t happen easily and I draw back on again, how hard this work is and oftentimes it’s a step or two forward and multiple steps back. So when I think of the shifting power piece and getting to collective impact and especially how StriveTogther is taking up collective impact with a rigorous focus on data. We’re looking at how we measure differently. I mentioned the 16 partnerships who have reached our proof point status because they have demonstrated outcomes change, which is critically important, and we look at individual outcomes.
Over the last several years as we’ve been thinking about how we’re holding this systems transformation definition and how we’re going to measure power shifts and really measure systems transformation, we’re using data to try and get to systems indicators and an example of a systems indicator, in the education context, would be really looking at what’s the student-teacher ratio, what are the teacher demographics in a population. Do they reflect the population knowing that same race teachers have an impact on children’s education? Looking at adjacent sector outcomes like housing and the impact of systemic racism that it’s had on housing and as Geoff mentioned where you live, where a child is born can determine their outcomes. So bringing that to light through data and looking at how we measure systems indicators along with individual outcomes is an approach and putting this data in front of those with power and also we would say that as we’ve really been much more explicit about building structures, accountability structures that include youth and families as a part of the work, knowing that there is power in community and just helping arm community like democratizing data so that we’re bringing that data forward with community and co-developing solutions that get to more shared power in community.
But it doesn’t come easily and I think we’re fighting forces in communities right now where we see after last year and the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and others in the nation’s reckoning with system racism and racial justice that we’re almost feeling a bit of a backlash in communities and so it’s arming communities and supporting communities with the tools that we have for collective impact including democratizing data and getting the right data in front of the right people in communities is what it will take to shift power. We see some examples of it but we’re going to need to see more by these partnerships with other—it’s like the William Julius Wilson Institute are so critical in getting the outcomes we want to see.
Melody Barnes: Thank you. I know we’re coming back to some more of these themes in our conversation. Erik, I want to bring you in. As the leader of Native Americans in Philanthropy, and we were colleagues at the Aspen Institute as well, you have watched with interest as collective impact has gained more and more traction in a wide range of communities around the country. I’m curious what you find to be compelling about this frame and then quite frankly, what may raise concerns for you about this frame as well.
Erik Stegman: Thanks, Melody, and it really is an honor to be here as part of this conversation with such an inspiring group and especially to reconnect with many of my colleagues from Aspen. I appreciate the question. I’ve been on a journey really since I was back running the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute about this collective impact frame. To be frank, I knew nothing about what collective impact was when I was there, and really started to learn a lot more about it from inside the Aspen Institute. It took a long time for me to understand it, and as I now moved into a philanthropy advocacy role, I’ve been reflecting on it a lot, and one of the ways I like to explain it is that, you know, I think collective impact is actually an approach that’s working toward a more indigenous world view, and I’ll explain how I think about that.
We’re doing a lot of work right now at Native Americans in Philanthropy in the climate and conservation space. It’s a growing, very important part of our work. It’s one of the number one priorities for all of our communities and nations. What I’ve started to realize is the silos and the systems, particularly in sectors like philanthropy are actually the biggest problem. Although I think a lot of times philanthropy is regularly acknowledging the silos, I don’t think they’re ready to confront that those sometimes are the biggest barrier. The biggest barrier for us is from our communities. We do not think about the environment in a siloed way, both from our cultural practices, our world view. The language is not only different, the world view is different so when we’re talking about solutions and systems change, it’s really hard for me to go and say, “Hey, why aren’t the climate funders talking to the conservation funders on this coastal resilience project?” Because the tribes are thinking of it as an economic development space, as a cultural space, and just to even get to that point of having a similar conversation with one another is really challenging. That’s how I came to collective impact.
I was working with youth leaders from across the country who were actually engaging in collective impact sort of projects all over the country, in some cases being part of backbone organizations, building coalitions, organizing mutual aid networks but no one saw themselves as collective impact. I think we were just looking at it as what we’re used to in Indian country. So that’s the frame I approach collective impact, and I think for that reason I think everything about its aims is incredibly crucial when we’re talking about systems change because the only way any community is going to be able to do what all of the speakers have already underlined is to seriously tackle that cross-sector, silo busting approach to things.
So what I would like to do to push the sort of collective impact community and stakeholders into new directions to really think about how are we talking about it because I think it’s really important to have the sort of analytical approach to everything that we’re all doing on the ground and trying to invest in this systems change but we’re going to have to share that story differently when it comes to each community because I think we’re only going to really be able to bring all of these different players and stakeholders in our own communities with us in this collective impact project the way we’re hoping to if we’re having conversations at the grassroots level, at the philanthropic level that actually mean something to one another, and we’re not constantly having to translate the whole thing.
That to me is sort of like the promise but also the continuing struggle I see in really having to go between talking to all of our native-led community organizations on the ground, policymakers, tribal leaders, and then folks who understand things like the collective impact frame, and I think if we can do a little bit more work in translating that in a culturally meaningful way to all these different communities, I think we can actually get a step further on the systems change piece.
Melody Barnes: Erik, are you—what’s the best way you believe to go about building that narrative and storytelling shift so we can get adoption on scale levels?
Erik Stegman: I think that’s a great question, and I don’t have a solid answer but I can tell you where I’ve seen this working. You know I think the child welfare space is a really interesting one. I’ve done a lot of work in that space. In my past position particularly I was working with a lot of youth who had experienced the foster care system in Indian country, and a lot of what we were doing was really trying to co-develop leadership development and advocacy platforms for them in a way where we could lift up their personal stories about experience in a nonextractive, strengths-based way but then to help connect that story to all these different stakeholders because I think the hard work is to make sure that that story is really bringing a lot of different kinds of stakeholders along when we’re talking about collective impact but organizations like ours and at the Center for Native American Youth, the Aspen Institute, or the Forum on Community Solutions, I think one of our strongest roles is to really make sure that we’re investing in the voice of who’s impacted but we’re doing that work behind the scenes with them to ensure that we’re getting that voice out to a lot of different channels in ways that lots of different potential system change agents can actually act on it. So that’s where I see a lot of it.
We used to organize some really important events on the Hill where we’d have some of these young people who had experienced the systems come to Capitol Hill and partner—they would actually do shadow days in the office and meet with a lot of different constituents but then they would write a blog about it for one of our philanthropy outlets, and then we’d also be getting that voice out into Indian country to a more grassroots audience, and I think the more we can kind of do that and synthesize those stories, I think people will connect to it and understand it along the way.
Melody Barnes: I think about the young people that we’ve often worked with, and who are part of the leadership with the Opportunity Youth Forum as they say, “Nothing about us without us,” so it is respecting the experience, expecting the skill and the savvy and intelligence that comes with that set of experiences, one, to your point, and, two, also finding channels to push that out into the bloodstream to make sure that those voices are being heard.
Rosanne, I’m going to turn to you now as well, and in the same way that we were talking about Jennifer’s work at StriveTogether and the growth of Strive and the significant investment that’s made by the Ballmers, we also want to congratulate Community Solutions and acknowledge the validation of your work as well, and the recently awarded 100&Change prize to continue to scale the work in your approach to ending homelessness in communities around the country. I think this is another wonderful example of the kind of challenge that people think, “Oh, it’s been with us forever. We’re never going to be able to do anything about it, it’s intractable,” but you have taken this on and are bringing such great thinking and collective impact approach to this work so that is huge and congratulations on that.
We know that part of what led to the new hundred-million-dollar investment from the MacArthur Foundation is your deep commitment to data and rigor and impact, something that Jennifer and Erik and Geoff, everyone has talked about this, and I want you to tell us a little bit more about what this looks like in the context of the work that you’re doing and how your approach to data has evolved over the past decade.
Rosanne Haggerty: Thank you, Melody, and just to echo what a pleasure it is to be with this great group. One of the things that I think we can point to over the last 10 years is that having named collective impact as the frame that we need to be operating within to tackle and gain ground on these complex problems that live in multiple places is that so many of us have now connected and are actively aware of and learning from and reinforcing each other’s work, and so that’s a major thing to lift up and celebrate in how much we’ve really gained from having this community of practice.
As you mentioned, Melody, it’s been a really powerful time for our work. This is our tenth year of existence, and we took this leap 10 years ago that programs were not enough, good programs were not enough to gain ground on homelessness, and this utter fragmentation of responsibility, lack of accountability for seeing that all of the investments and worthy activities and good programs were adding up into less homelessness really required a different way of thinking and working, and so it’s been very much a learning process.
The breakthrough I would say came only four to five years ago. We were seeing incredible progress through initiatives like our 100,000 Homes Campaign of communities voluntarily looking at their systems, looking at how to connect the dots differently so that people experiencing homelessness would be more rapidly assisted in being placed in housing but we weren’t seeing overall reductions. We weren’t seeing the kind of real shift toward an outcome mentality that I think all of us feel is almost where these problems need to begin. How do we get to a place that we see as humanly and acceptable, as just, as equitable, not just keep doing good programs, and so we started about five years ago not just doing more quality improvement work, more work with data but we actually put a different end state out there like what would it take for communities to work together to get to a functional zero homelessness population by population, and to work down to a state where homelessness is rare overall and brief when it occurs, and that an episode of homelessness is quickly spotted and resolved.
We now have 89 cities or counties or even regions that are part of this movement. We have 14 that have gotten to the sustainable end state of functional zero, this measurable place where no one is chronically homeless any longer, there are no longer any homeless veterans. We have another 44 communities within the 89 that are showing measurable progress. The key to all this really is having this shared end state, having shared measures, and helping community teams understand the practice, the implementation and practice of how to use data quality improvement to understand comprehensively how this problem is moving and changing, who it’s affecting across the population and individually as well. Those two scales are so vital, and to understand how racial disparities are producing and sustaining homelessness. I think this rigor around data both personal that is held in a HIPAA-compliant way in each community but also kind of at the aggregate level looked at across our network regularly and by our coaches is helping communities understand that collective action requires data. You cannot actually have a common language around what’s working, what isn’t, where do we need to put our investment, who is being left out without that kind of data rigor.
So I’ll just stop there and will be happy to expand more on some of this but it really has been seeing data as a learning tool, not an occasion for judgment or report filing but as maybe the most powerful tool in the quiver as far as collective impact action.
Melody Barnes: I would love for you to talk a little bit more about that, to the point that you were making at the end, seeing data as a helpful tool, an accelerant to try and meet mission as opposed to that thing that you get beaten about the head and shoulders with because I think at least in some conversations along the way over the last decade and more, there are those who shy away from data or the perception is that they will shy away from it or it’s hard to gather data, to use it effectively, and hearing more about some of the challenges but the ways that you’ve been able to overcome them I think might be helpful for communities that are at different places in this world.
Rosanne Haggerty: Sure, and I will say that we were kind of in that trap of thinking at the outset of our journey that if we only got the right data matching systems set up and the right agreements in place, everything would look clear and there’d be a straight path. What we’ve learned is that the process of understanding a shared reality in a community and having that kind of data is really a social process. And in our communities, the key agencies that who are touching homelessness, the not-for-profits receive HUD funding, county agencies, the housing authority, the VA, they all need to be sitting at the same table, and it really is very much at this point an undeveloped process. It shouldn’t be this way.
I mean we can imagine a world where there is technology-enabled data that is just understood as necessary and that funds going into this work are regularly invested but in each one of these communities is groups of people sitting down and getting this new kind of shared truth established about accounting for everyone across the community and having data quality standards that can allow teams of folks to understand are we missing anyone, are we able to update the data regularly, are we able to use the data to see trends and to get to a place where we can run tests of change to see what improvements will actually move the needle on some of the biggest opportunities that the data suggest could reduce homelessness.
So it has been a process of helping communities learn to put their information together, how to use it in a way that actually is a guide to action that allows them the freedom to continue iterating, not to basically say, “Gee, did we get it right?” and let’s cross our fingers five years later after the grant that we did it.
This is basically the real-time use of information and a feedback loop to help you accomplish your goals, and I have to say we hear all the time from communities that this is actually changing the way they think about public services, changing the way they think about the whole constellation of issues around homelessness that drive homelessness, that if communities worked in this collaborative, data-driven way around foster care, around incarceration, around eviction prevention, we wouldn’t have these issues, that data has become the language that communities can use to get a shared reality and to experience the freedom of testing and learning as opposed to the battle of ideologies or just trying to persuade a funder that this is the right way versus learning our way into something that is complex and that is going to change.
Melody Barnes: As you’re talking, I think about some of my colleagues at the University of Virginia at the Equity Center and the data visualization work they’ve done and the embracing of data by the community. It can be a real critical tool as we all work toward equity, and I’m wondering, Jennifer or Geoff or Erik, if you have anything you want to add. Jennifer, it looks like you want to jump in.
Jennifer Blatz: Yeah, well, I’m just emphasizing everything that Rosanne has just shared, and I can remember the first time a few years ago when Rosanne and I had a chance to talk, and we started sharing a bit about our processes and realized how similar they were in terms of using continuous quality improvements and something right now just building on what Rosanne said is this hypothesis that said if we can train and support the capability building of stakeholders at all different levels in communities, working across all different types of issues, that building this kind of capability and capacity will really drive towards system change and more equitable outcomes.
Right now we’re testing together with Community Solutions and also Cities United a network working on safe and healthy communities in violence prevention to kind of look at are there elements of this type of continuous quality improvement approach that we have tested and kind of refined that and looked at how to do that in other contexts because I think when we think of getting to that population-level impact across systems, this is really where the learning of the last decade of collective impact particularly as it relates to building data capabilities, and not necessarily systems.
The systems are great, lots of communities have built cross-sector, cross-data systems and have figured out the data sharing aspect, and the technical pieces of that are wanting but what I think for example speaking to it is so critical. It’s the process and the capability and the time and the resources, the infrastructure that’s required to be able to do this type of data-driven work that’s necessary to get the change that we’re seeking in outcomes.
Melody Barnes: Erik or Geoff, I don’t know if there’s anything you want to add. Go ahead.
Geoffrey Canada: You got right into one of my sweet spots when you started talking about data. This is what—I think there are a couple of challenges with this. Number one, early on in my career you were punished for being honest about outcomes and data, right? If the data was bad and then people say, “Oh, that didn’t work. We’re stopping funding you.” So there was reluctance in the field to be transparent. It’s so the opposite of the way that medicine works where people say, “Oh, it didn’t work so what are you going to do next? Let’s fund you to do something better, more creative, more innovative because we know we have to solve the problem.” So if the answer is if you fail, then we don’t fund you anymore, you drive all of the creativity out of the field. That’s one thing I want to say about data.
The other thing is the work we’re trying to do, one of the reasons this work is so hard, our work is like sort of dealing with cancer. Ten years ago people thought cancer was one disease and they kept looking for one treatment. Today they realize cancer is 40 different things, and the drug that works on breast cancer doesn’t necessarily work on colon cancer. Our work is that complicated. There were pieces of this that we are figuring out and it won’t solve every situation but it might solve this particular one. The question is do we have the time and the resources to be able to test these things out in a way that we can then fill in this constellation of support dealing with folks who are living in poverty and have all of these other issues between sexism and racism and all of the issues of the environment that are devastating communities. You put all of this stuff together and ask somebody to come up with a solution, it’s almost impossible, right? You’re almost bound to fail. We’ve got to be able to have, I think, the vision to say people are working on different parts of this problem and having successes in different areas, and we’ve got to think about how we begin to pull this stuff together so that we can get a more comprehensive response to something that is really difficult. So that’s the piece that we were talking about data. I just felt like I wanted to get in there and say that.
Melody Barnes: Rosanne?
Rosanne Haggerty: I just wanted to plus one to Geoff’s point about like the beautiful irony is like to solve a population-level problem, the cancer analogy is perfect. You need to know each person’s situation and respond to it in its granularity. It’s not one or the other, and this idea that to gain ground on these problems we have to both know the individual and keep our eye on the overall system. The fact that we are learning how to do this and that the collective impact frame has been very much kind of an enabling framework is one of the things that I think is just such an important point to reinforce as far as learning over the last 10 years.
Melody Barnes: Before we wrap up, I know our time is coming to an end, I want to connect a point that we’ve been making about data and something that Geoff said, you know, the reluctance sometimes to show what’s working and what’s not because it can affect funding, to talk about collective impact and philanthropy a little bit. I have a colleague and I think he stole this from someone else who often says we can’t solve lifecycle challenges on grant cycle funding. A problem. We also have, OK, this didn’t work or you mean we might need to make an adjustment 30 degrees to try something new, the iterative process of this, and the fact that that always wasn’t rewarded, and I’m wondering, just thinking about those examples and there are so many more, one, how has collective impact linked up with philanthropy? Are these two—this powerful funding source and this growing and developing and in many ways transformative approach to solving these challenges, can they be friends? And what are you seeing? What are your experiences and what suggestions might you have?
Erik Stegman: I can hop in briefly on that. You know I actually want to bring it back to a project that I’m continuing to partnership with with the Opportunity Youth Forum team at Aspen, and I know you’ve been part of this project with us, Melody, but one of the ways I’m really seeing collective impact kind of operate differently in unexpected places is that we’ve really been working closely to think about how we can take what we’ve learned from this program called Fresh Tracks which is now part of the Aspen Opportunity Youth Forum, which brings youth of color together, very diverse youth of color, 18 to 24, with a strong focus on indigenous youth in the outdoors as a healing and organizing platform, and really looking at the outdoors not as a place where we’re trying to just increase equitable access but to actually see the healing power of the outdoors through an indigenous world view.
It’s been an incredible program with some amazing outcomes, and we started to realize a lot of the funders who were part of that were mostly like REI and some of the other foundations that fund the outdoors who’d never really worked in this space around youth leadership and trying to really give these young people the tools they needed to do real change work in their communities but then we started to bring in big foundations like Annie E. Casey and others, and we started to see, oh, we’re just inviting them into this work not just to fund us but they were actually thought leaders with us as funders, and what we’re all learning from what these young people are doing because we had such a strong evaluation, and now that’s transformed into this new outdoor equity network where we’re really engaging those young people thanks to funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to actually define their own wellness measures, and not telling them that, hey, we want the outdoors to be part of this but knowing full well it is part of it because of their experiences.
So now they’re in the process of developing these measures that we’re going to be able to share with the Opportunity Youth Forum network, and we’re developing a theory of change to really try to bring some of these youth and family and equity-centered funders together with these outdoor funders to really shake up those silos, and that’s been really I think interesting for me because that’s where I’ve seen a lot of this kind of potential collective impact change starting in something that I think a lot of folks would never look at but these are really important sectors that are now working together deeply in communities through youth leadership in a way they weren’t before. So that’s just one example I’d love to offer as another project that NAP is continuing to partner with your team on.
Melody Barnes: Yes, and inviting and engaging people deeply in the work so it isn’t the look what we did over the last three years but be at the table with us, and us means all of us so that we can collaborate and develop this work together. I know that’s the approach my colleagues, Steve Patrick and Monique Miles, have taken, and trying to build that community of funders at the table with us. I don’t know if Rosanne or Jennifer or Geoff?
Geoffrey Canada: I know Jennifer, you are actually– for the funding community. I think this is public, private philanthropic dollars. People keep trying to force folks to make a choice. Are you going to work at this level of systems change or are you going to work at the neighborhood community level? The way I think about this is trying to deal with the Flint water crisis, right? Public policy disaster. So someone had to fix that disaster to public policy. Meanwhile children and families are drinking poisonous water. Someone’s got to get the water into those families because you can be doing this other stuff but if the kids are all going to be getting sick, lead poisoning and other issues from drinking contaminated water, that’s a false choice, and I feel like people keep trying to force us to make the false choices. Are you going to deal with the policy or are you going to deal with the kids and the families who are in dire condition and they need help right now today?
What I would say to the philanthropic community is you all need to practice a little collective work yourselves, right? You all need to come together and say, look, if I can’t fund all of it, I need partners because you can’t get folks thinking you have to choose between which one you’re going to do. We’ve got to figure out a way to do both of these things, and it’s going to take resources to do it. Here’s the area, Melody, that I think people are shortsighted about. We know when you lift a child out of poverty for real, and that boy or girl becomes a man or a woman who can take care of themselves and families, you have changed generational outcomes. It’s not just about what happens to that child. It’s about their children and their children’s children. When you begin to look at the investment it takes to accomplish this, it’s fairly meager, right? It seems maybe a lot for the individual child but we’re not thinking about what it means to really end systemic poverty in this country, and the long-lasting impact that’s going to have on our economy, on our society in ways that I think are important. So I just think we’re not thinking big enough on the philanthropic side about this.
This is not a small kind of effort to actually—you want to end homelessness, you want to end sort of the pollution going on in our communities around this country, you want to solve sort of the generational poverty issues and places that people have been discriminated against for 400 years, it’s going to take a real investment to do that, and I think some of us are saying we’re prepared to be held accountable but don’t make me make the choice. Don’t make me choose how I’m going to go into a community and try to help folks. We’ve got to be given a real opportunity to solve these problems for real.
Melody Barnes: Yes, I see lots of heads nodding. I’ll add something to that which was I think beautifully and powerfully said that it’s a constant both/and that requires funding of the direct services, and the work that often I see people want to fund alongside the work that I call the unsexy work, backbone organizations. The parts of the work that make collective impact work, that help the collaboration take place, that can help support the data and so many other elements of the work, that all of these pieces are pieces of the puzzle that have to snap together, and they need resources as well. That’s something that we often see missing in communities. Jennifer?
Jennifer Blatz: Can I add just one thing? So first of all, Geoff, everything you said, ditto to all of this, and Erik, that’s a terrific example, and also thinking about corporate philanthropy and then of course philanthropy becoming a partner with this work, and I think that we’re increasingly finding a couple of things.
First, in terms of philanthropy as a partner to collective impact, it goes back to what, Geoff, you said at the outset of this being long-term work, and I see that philanthropy can commit to longer term particularly at the national kind of capability building but local philanthropy is where it’s been more challenging, and for the reasons that you discussed, this kind of false dichotomy of program versus systems work, and so much of the work, and this is what I’m reminded of, so much of the work that we’re trying to move in communities is publicly funded.
So there has been particularly in this time of economic stimulus, the American Rescue Plan, a time to be able to tell this story. We’ve been working on how do we tell the story of the return on investment, the sort of drop in the bucket that philanthropy pays to move those public dollars to more equitable recovery. We’re seeing examples of that that have been driven by collective impact partnerships in communities like Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Bridgeport Prospers put together a cross-sector partnership to work on prenatal to three strategies that they call the Baby Bundle, the Bridgeport Baby Bundle, and they’re leveraging ARPA funds to now spread that type of practice across the state of Connecticut and really move policy in a way that not only moves public dollars but also moves the way prenatal to three care is structured in the state. That’s an opportunity that requires capability building and capacity building but I think if we can tell the story to philanthropy about their investments and the way the return on investments particularly in moving public dollars, that is a real opportunity for us in collective impact going forward.
Melody Barnes: I know our time is about up and I thought I would ask just one last question of all of you as we mark this 10-year anniversary. I know this is hard. Speaking of false choices, I know this is a false choice. I’m just going to put it out there as one but what’s the thing that you would want to say this is what I think that we’ve learned over the last 10 years that we need to carry into the next? What’s the lesson that you would want to share with those who are listening or those who are reading this conversation?
Geoffrey Canada: I’ll be first because for me it’s really clear. Having grown up during the war on poverty when people said that you couldn’t solve these issues, giving public dollars just really didn’t matter, I think the big lesson is that we’ve proven it works. You can do these tough things. You can eliminate the achievement gap. You can tackle homelessness. You can scale this work across regions. I think that’s huge. It’s important. We’ve got data and evidence that it actually works.
Melody Barnes: Thanks, Geoff. Who wants to jump in there next?
Rosanne Haggerty: I’ll echo that, Melody, with the fact that homelessness is solvable. We now have the evidence that communities have done it, and we see what the path looks like and that it’s less about money. It’s more about the way we organize ourselves to be accountable for driving solutions.
Melody Barnes: Nice, terrific. Jennifer?
Jennifer Blatz: I’m happy to go next. I echo what’s been said and I would say actually, Melody, is something you mentioned from the Opportunity Youth Forum work which is nothing about us without us. I think a key learning for us and something that we continue to reiterate as a fail forward in our work, is those who are most impacted by the systems that we’re working to change have to be part of changing those systems, and so really working to get to authentic community ownership and working together with communities to co-develop solutions is the best way to get outcomes at scale.
Melody Barnes: Wonderful. Thank you. Erik, can you bring us home?
Erik Stegman: I’ll do my best. This has been such a great conversation. I think for me just in my work especially over the last several months, I think we are at a unique opportunity where the broader public is understanding the problems in these systems at a much deeper level because of the pandemic and a lot of the other things that have been going on. So I think now what I really want to focus on is to continue to leverage that understanding of these systematic problems being laid bare in a new way for a bigger audience, and to figure out how we can use collective impact as an approach to help really showcase these solutions and everything we’ve been discussing today. I think it’s just an important sort of public communications moment right now.
Melody Barnes: Wonderful. I want to thank you all. Often things aren’t as advertised but you all are and this conversation was. You’re just wonderful, wonderful leaders and I want to thank you not only for the work that you’ve done but for your willingness to share it with others and to continue pushing ahead so thank you so much.
And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes of this podcast, including a links to the SSIR series Collective Impact: 10 Years Later where this roundtable is featured.
We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.
The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.
This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast host. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, we hope you are safe and well.